If you're a music fan, the first wave of smart speakers was probably a disappointment. While Alexa and Google Assistant have definitively proven they have a place in the home, the first Echo and Google Home devices were unimpressive when it came to actually playing music. They did the job in a pinch, and being able to command Spotify with your voice is a killer feature, but many longed for better-quality audio.
Fortunately, that call has been answered. In the past six months, Sonos, Google and Apple have all released music-first speakers with voice assistants built in. There's no doubt that the Google Home Max, Alexa-powered Sonos One and Apple HomePod all sound far better than just about any other voice-powered speakers out there. If you value audio quality above all else (and have about $400 to spend), what's the right smart speaker for you? Let's break it down.
How we tested
For the purposes of this story, we compared a single HomePod ($350), two Sonos One speakers ($350 total) paired in stereo and a single Google Home Max ($399). While the prices are in the same range, you'll get different speaker components with each set. Each Sonos One includes a single tweeter and one mid-woofer to cover both mid-range frequencies and bass. The Home Max answers with two tweeters and two large 4.5-inch woofers. The HomePod has perhaps the most unusual arrangement: seven total tweeters (each with its own amplifier), along with a single woofer that points straight up.
To compare the speakers, we set them up in the same room, made sure each was running the most current version of its software and, in the case of the Sonos One, ran the TruePlay tuning software, which adjusts audio quality for the room and placement of the speakers. The HomePod and Home Max both tune themselves automatically; there's no way to control that part of the audio equation. In all cases, we left EQ settings on default. Finally, we used an Apple Music subscription for the HomePod and Sonos One, while Google Play Music provided audio to the Home Max. Song choices trended toward modern rock, indie and pop, although we sampled songs from every decade since the 1960s.
Lastly, although I did most of the listening, a number of other Engadget editors lent their ears and feedback to this review.